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The Right to Ovate, and Other Problems

At Cannes recently, the actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out on the negative response to Gus Van Sant’s new film, The Sea of Trees.

“Anyone has as much right to boo as they have to ovate,” the actor observed.  Before any knickers get twisted over the switch in pronoun number, I should make clear that what stopped me cold was the infinitive form to ovate. Really?  Was I the only reader who looked at this and thought first of ovaries, which as a point of anatomical fact not anyone has?

A little dig…

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An Honor and a Horror

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Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…

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‘Cheeky Nando’s’

Humility is always a good thing. I got a dose of it recently, courtesy of a BuzzFeed article posted to Facebook by a friend of mine, Siobhan Wagner, a journalist who was born in the U.S, but has been living in London for nine years. The article was called “Americans On Tumblr Are Trying To Find Out What A ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ Is And Are Struggling” and concerned a meme that had become popular in England. Here’s an example:

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As the title suggests, the article detailed the exasperation expressed by Am…

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A Really Bad Spell

bad_spellingThere are bad spellers, and then there are really bad spellers. Most of the time when we gripe about bad spellers we mean the first kind, who are actually for the most part pretty good.

It’s like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, with its motto “Wretched writers welcome.” Wretched they may be, but they actually have to be  pretty skillful to come up with parodies of Bulwer-Lytton’s fulsome 19th-century prose. Here’s the 2014 contest winner, by Betsy Doorman:

“When the dead moose floated into vi…

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Scribbling Women

Per1Maybe John McWhorter is just being provocative in his post “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.” Following up on his argument that texting and tweeting amount to “talking with your fingers,” he contends that we are at the dawn of a renewed oral society. We shouldn’t be so concerned, he says, that our students’ formal writing skills are slipping. Other primarily oral societies — the ancient Greeks, for instance — managed to think critically and develop persuasive arguments. “With modern technolo…

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The End of Irony. Or Not.

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David Letterman played it straight after 9/11: “New York is the greatest city in the world.”

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The key text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions

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Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…

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How Much Do We Curse?

cursing copyTwo Sundays ago, a graph in The New York Times Magazine caught my eye. The title was “Dear Reader: Are You Prone to Profanity?” The graph captured the results of an online study conducted by the newspaper’s research-and-analytics department in January. In this case, the question was: “How often, if at all, do you swear or curse in conversation?”

Of the 3,244 New York Times subscribers who responded, the majority (61 percent) went with “occasionally,” which seems like a fairly safe response f…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …